Justices Asked to Define 'Mentally Retarded' in Death Cases

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Death row, San Quentin
Death row, San Quentin

Freddie Lee Hall sits on Florida's death row for the 1978 abduction and murder of a 21-year-old woman who was seven months pregnant. He should not be executed because, he claims, he is "mentally retarded."

Twelve years after the U.S. Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that execution of mentally retarded persons violates the Eighth Amendment, the justices will use Hall's case to examine how states determine who is "intellectually disabled" (now the preferred term for mentally retarded) and whether Florida's test is too narrow. The court will hear arguments in Hall v. Florida on March 3.

Florida and its supporters want the court to hold fast to its language in Atkins giving states "the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction."

"This case turns on whether Atkins truly left any determination to the states or whether, as Hall contends, states are constitutionally bound to vague, constantly evolving—and sometimes contradictory—diagnostic criteria established by organizations committed to expanding Atkins’s reach," Florida solicitor general Allen Winsor wrote.

Most states have developed appropriate standards, according to death penalty scholars and some national psychological and disability organizations. However, they and Hall argue the justices need to tell Florida and some other states that their tests ignore generally accepted clinical definitions of mental retardation.

Nothing in Atkins "authorizes the states to narrow the substantive scope of the constitutional right itself by defining mental retardation in a way that excludes defendants who qualify for a diagnosis of mental retardation under accepted clinical standards," said Hall's counsel, Eric Pinkard of the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel in Tampa. "Yet that is precisely what Florida has done here."

Defining a disability

Florida, ironically, was one of the states to which the Supreme Court looked in finding a national consensus against capital punishment of intellectually disabled persons. In 2001, a year before the Atkins decision, Florida enacted a law prohibiting their execution.

The state's test generally tracked the three elements that the Supreme Court suggested in Atkins. The justices said that "clinical definitions of mental retardation require not only subaverage intellectual functioning, but also significant limitations in adaptive skills such as communication, self-care, and self-direction that became manifest before age 18."

Florida's law requires clear and convincing proof of "significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the period from conception to age 18." The statute defines that as "performance that is two or more standard deviations from the mean score on a standardized intelligence test."

On its face, Hall and his amicus supporters say, the Florida standard is consistent with the clinical definition of mental retardation which, accounting for standard error of measurement, would provide for IQ scores in the range of 70 to 75. The problem, however, is that the Florida Supreme Court has interpreted the state test as requiring an IQ of 70 or below, they contend, with no consideration of the standard error of measurement.

What's being said

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    Sounds as though the three elements are describing the majority male populace.

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